With a barely-4-year-old and a not-quite-2-year-old, in a 32-foot boat sailing up the Inside Passage, a family discovers the best rewards are those never imagined.

This was the third time I'd sailed up the Inside Passage in a boat. The third time I'd watched surf explode from the rocky headlands of northern Vancouver Island, the swell rhythmically shifting my view of the horizon. The umpteenth time I'd listened to the weather forecast on the VHF radio while gulls catapulted past me in the wind. But it was the first time I'd done a trip like this with young children on board.

In June of last year, in the lengthening days of summer, my husband, Pat, and I launched north from Bellingham, Washington, on a 32-foot sailboat with our sons for crew. In 15 years together, we'd learned that we were happiest when we were outdoors; now, we were applying these same lessons as a family. We set out, like we had so many times before, in search of wilderness, adventure, and the thrill that comes when we push beyond our comfort zones. Under the tutelage of a barely-4-year-old and a not-quite-2-year-old, in a floating home the size of a child's bedroom, we soon discovered that the best rewards were those we'd never imagined.

"Mommy, when I pee in the ocean it gets fuller," Huxley announced. My older son gazed back at me with serious dark eyes as he shared his latest observation. With one hand, I held onto the back of his life jacket while he relieved himself over the lifeline of our sailboat; with the other arm, I balanced my younger son on my bent knee. Pat was adjusting the sails while keeping watch for a flailing child. We juggled between single-handing the boat and managing kids. Each shift, Pat and I drew straws. The winner got the boat.

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But on this day, I was the lucky one. As I helped Huxley pull up his rain pants, a humpback whale surfaced 12 metres from us. Huxley heard the whale before he saw it; his eyes widening at the whale's loud "whoosh" as he turned instinctively toward the sound. Grinning, he pointed to its enormous silvery back as a plume of breath rose into the sky. So close I could make out the barnacles and unique markings on its skin, I held my boys tight and we peered together into a magical, underwater world. A moment later, the whale was gone, leaving only a stream of bubbles in its wake.

Once we'd finished with bathroom duties and whale watching, we moved on to our next task: breakfast. The boys sat in the boat's cockpit gripping their steaming bowls of oatmeal, trusting us, and the universe, to watch over them. Our sails stood full and proud in the south breeze that blew steadily from behind. In the gently rolling sea we listed back and forth, our mast dancing against the steely gray sky. For my two sons, clad in yellow and orange rain pants and matching blue jackets, this was just another ordinary day. Like most children, they accepted the world as it came, even if it meant eating breakfast with a whale in the rain.

"Look, daddy, gull!" Huxley yelled.

The family's young crew members play in the dinghy on a beach in Ell Cove on the northern Chatham Strait, Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times
The family's young crew members play in the dinghy on a beach in Ell Cove on the northern Chatham Strait, Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times

"Dook, daddy, dull!" Dawson echoed. The boys pointed to a flock of mew gulls foraging near our boat, taking turns plucking tiny silver fish from the frothy surface. The birds played rather than battled with the wind, catching the edge of a gust with one silvery wing, dipping the other to bank steeply as they circled and dove. It was a lesson in the basic laws of physics balanced against the magical principles of flight. The boys laughed and shouted as they watched the birds whirl around us. Dawson tried to stand up for a better view. Instead, he toppled over and Pat caught him by the strap of his life jacket before he landed on his brother. The oatmeal ended up in a pile at our feet.

So far, it had been a typical toddler morning: spilled food, a few tears, an argument about who got the orange polka-dot bowl. We were short on sleep, like most parents are, as we juggled tasks to get ready for the day. The key difference was in the setting. We were three weeks into a 10-week sailing expedition up the Inside Passage, a 1,200-mile (1,930km) stretch of islands and coves that extends along the North Pacific coastline from Washington state to southeast Alaska.

This passage transits some of the most scenic northern waterways in the world, and, if one dares to venture off the main shipping lanes, some of the most remote. It's a trip that many passengers now take by cruise ship, others by ferry. Versions of this route have been travelled for centuries — by indigenous residents, fishermen, loggers and explorers.

Still, for all of its seeming popularity, the Inside Passage is a far cry from being a busy thoroughfare. In one's own boat it's possible to explore granite-walled fjords and secluded inlets, to visit moss-draped forests where old-growth cedar trees whisper their ancient secrets to anyone who will listen. The only crowds to be found are of the wild sort: rowdy sea lions, playful porpoises, rafts of sea ducks that gather in the thousands. Cellphones work poorly, if at all, and sensational news headlines matter little here. We spent most nights in the company of rattling kingfishers and curious seals. Besides the volume of our own noisy crew, this coastline offered the sort of quiet that has become exceedingly scarce.

Patrick Farrell hikes with his toddler son on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert
Patrick Farrell hikes with his toddler son on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert

Despite its often serene backdrop, the Inside Passage is fraught with hazards. Each year, there are reports of drownings and capsized vessels, tales of unlucky sailors who perished in these unforgiving northern waters. Currents turn to roaring rivers if the tides are timed incorrectly, anchors drag along rocky bottoms, and winds blow up channels with hurricane force. Storms arrive, like most things in Alaska, bold and fierce and often without warning. Although Pat and I spent many months preparing for this journey and have two decades of boating experience between us, we knew that these facts wouldn't guarantee a safe passage. It was prudence that mattered. Each day we woke up and reminded ourselves that we are small and the ocean is big.

Pat and I are sailors. We are adventurers. We are also parents. It's a dilemma we all must face: how to reconcile our many different identities into a life that feels true, and good, and, in the end, responsible. Into an existence that leaves room for others. Spending the summer on a boat was our attempt to knit the disparate parts of our lives together. On both of our previous journeys up this coastline (by sailboat and rowboat, respectively), our days were distilled to the simplest of objectives: sail, row, eat, sleep, breathe. There were only ourselves, and each other, to look after as we traversed thousands of miles alone. On this trip, many of the elements remained the same: the ocean, the wind, the waves. Yet there had been a fundamental shift; we had two young companions to remind us of the stakes, and of the joy.

We were here on a calm day in a larger boat yet our crossing of Queen Charlotte Strait, in northern British Columbia, felt more difficult. Perhaps it was because there was so little time to focus on the task at hand. Or that my mind was traveling in a dozen different directions at once. Manage sails. Read the chart. Dawson wants Legos. Huxley needs a snack. Prepare the lines to tack. Check that the radar is on the correct setting. It looks like a rain squall is coming; where have I put our rain bibs? Now one boy is biting. The other has spilled his water. Do I smell a dirty diaper? And how can this boat feel so impossibly cramped? Or perhaps it was simply that the physical act of keeping two little boys safe and entertained in a liquid world was by turns exhausting and terrifying.

Before we left, I knew only to expect one thing: chaos. The more practical aspects of our lives on the water were harder to envision. I assumed, foolishly, that five pairs of underwear would be enough for a potty-trained 4-year-old. I packed a dozen novels that sat on the damp bookshelf and collected mildew while I overlooked the ear plugs I needed to temper the volume of small voices amplified in an even smaller space. I brought favorite recipes that mocked me from their corner of the galley as I struggled to cook the most basic, one-pot meals in a kitchen the size of a coat closet. I failed to consider the problem of toy truck wheels rolling back and forth on the table as we sailed, sending me repeatedly on hands and knees to pick up the pieces. Ours was a topsy-turvy existence indeed.

The family's 32-foot sailboat, Chaika, under sail off the coast of Washington state. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times
The family's 32-foot sailboat, Chaika, under sail off the coast of Washington state. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times

There are plenty of reasons sailing in a 32-foot boat with young children isn't on the top of most people's travel itineraries. Many days, it was impossible not to question our motivations, and our sanity. Like when one child, and then the next, spilled milk all over the cushions that couldn't be washed, while yelling Mommy, Mommy!(as though I was the one who caused the cup to tip). Or when first one child, and then the other, vomited all over the inside of our boat, spewing into the cracks and crevices of multiple hatches. Or when I wanted desperately to wake up and stretch and fix myself a cup of coffee, alone. But when I tiptoed the three steps to the stove, the floor creaked and I accidentally banged the teakettle and soon the whole boat was awake. There were no doors, no privacy. In fact, there was barely enough room to turn around.

But I've also learned why this was precisely the sort of trip that belonged on our bucket list. Each night, peering into the V-berth, the triangular-shaped bed in the bow of the boat, I watched my two sons sleeping, bottoms raised, hands draped across their faces in that deep slumber that comes after a day of playing hard. In the quiet morning fog, I felt a soft warm body curl itself against mine, burrowing under my sleeping bag. I saw my children discover that sea anemones squirt if you poke them. We sat together in the bowsprit as the waves passed beneath us in a swirl of green and white. I watched Huxley encounter death up close for the first time in the form of a flattened crow and heard him say, "I wish it would fly away." I tuned my ears to a cacophony of voices, wavering between toddlers squealing from the beach, an eagle calling from a cedar snag, and thunder pounding its drum in the sky. I slowed down long enough to realise that our time together was precious, and ever so fleeting.

We dropped anchor one night in a forested cove, where spruce and hemlock branches dangled over the high tide line, ravens watched us from the treetops, and the only sounds were the soft sloshing of water against our hull and the chortles of song sparrows foraging on the beach. All four of us nestled in our sleeping bags, breathing in time with the waves. In those quiet moments there was no place I would rather have been, no adventure better than the one we were experiencing. Never mind the smelly diapers and spilled spaghetti sauce, or the constant echo of "Mommy, Mommy, I NEED ... milk or sandwiches or that toy RIGHT NOW." When two brown-eyed boys peeked out of the V-berth, arms open, eyes wide, bodies tuned to the jostling of the sea, it became achingly clear that we were exactly where we were meant to be, as a family.

One afternoon, in the last week of our trip, halfway between Glacier Bay and the northern terminus of the Inside Passage, we loaded into the dinghy for a trip to shore. Pat rowed, I sat with Dawson in the stern, and Huxley took his usual position in the bow.

A grizzly bear sits near the shoreline as the family watched from their dinghy in northern Lynn Canal near Haines, Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times
A grizzly bear sits near the shoreline as the family watched from their dinghy in northern Lynn Canal near Haines, Alaska. Photo / Caroline Van Hemert, The New York Times

As we approached the beach, Huxley asked, "Is that a bear?" Sure enough, a shiny-coated, two-toned grizzly had just wandered down to the coast. We wouldn't be landing there any more. Instead, for the next hour, we floated in our tiny wooden rowboat in a quiet cove and enjoyed the rare pleasure of watching a bear do what bears do. It turned over driftwood logs in search of ants, rolled on its back in the grass, and, to the boys' great delight, pooped on the sand. The latter was an unusually good performance, with the bear dropping enormous piles of scat on the ground as it walked. The boys started giggling, in that contagious way of kids, and soon all four of us were laughing so hard we were nearly crying. This was our farewell gift: a reminder to hold onto a bit of wildness, and laughter, always laughter.

There was a time for each of us when the wild felt infinite and the horizon might have been the edge of the earth. A time when we didn't need to be reminded that the present is all that matters. Because somewhere, a bear is cruising the shoreline. Because at any moment, a whale might appear from below. Because life, in all of its messy glory, is there to be seized. For my children these moments were now. And if I was willing to climb on, their magic carpet had room for me, too. "Come on, Mommy," they said. "Let's go." And so we did.

Caroline Van Hemert, based in Alaska, is a wildlife biologist and author of the memoir, The Sun is a Compass, published in March.